The dead cats, which apparently had been forced to live in a boarded-off room of the home, had been dead so long they weren't even initially recognizable as remains, authorities said.
"We thought, 'Oh, it's just trash and feces'," said Mark Sabart, animal cruelty investigator with Panhandle Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). "Upon closer inspection, there were bones and then there was a body.
"I was just floored with the amount of animals we exhumed," he added.
Authorities first became aware of conditions inside the house when one of its residents called law enforcement Sunday to say he'd found his wife dead on a couch. He told them he'd waited to call until he could clean her up and move her to the front of the house.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputy who responded noted that there was a strong smell of ammonia and pet feces matted to the floor. He notified animal control officers who couldn't reach anyone inside the home until Wednesday.
While walking through the residence, officers found 16 cats in the kitchen, which had been recently cleaned but was still smeared with feces.
They also pushed open the remaining entrance to the living room, which the homeowner said he'd boarded up "a while back." He said he didn't even know how any cats had gotten in there.
Five were found under a couch, their remains matted into a square.
"Two of them were head to head, like they were just huddling before they died," said animal control officer K. Schoeneman. "This is like nothing you've ever seen before."
Although the resident questioned by authorities said he lived in a camper on the property, his wife, their daughter and her partner lived in the house.
Mary Esther Code Enforcement Officer Robert Herbstreith, who accompanied the animal control officers, told the man the house was not fit for habitation.
"I told him it was in his best interests and in the city's best interests for him to stay in the RV," Herbstreith said.
The man told him he needed a week to clean up the house, so the city granted him a week to do so.
The surviving cats, which had apparently been confined to the kitchen area, were friendly and in reasonably good health, although all were underweight.
The man surrendered the cats to PAWS, though he refused to surrender two dogs that were also found in the house. Animal control plans to petition the courts for custody of the dogs.
All the residents of the home can be charged, according to PAWS officials, who noted they are currently building a case. They will release more information when charges have been filed.
The cats, all of which tested negative for feline AIDS and leukemia, are sweet and friendly, workers said. Once they are medically cleared, all will be available for adoption. Only one appears to be pregnant, though none have been neutered.
"I think they were happy to get out of there," said Mary Rudder, head of animal control and adoption at PAWS. "Because of the way they have lived, they deserve to have a chance to have a real home."
On Thursday, the surviving cats - thirsty, hungry and dirty - pressed against the sides of their cages at PAWs, meowing for attention.
"Poor babies," said Vicky Morris, clinic supervisor at the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society. "I can't even imagine how much the others must have suffered. No food or water."
Morris said the rescue also took a toll on the officers who handled the call.
"I could see they were emotionally drained," she said. "I told them, 'You saved 16 cats and two dogs'."
(NWF Daily News - Jan 20, 2017)